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Classical 101

Columbus Symphony This Weekend: Anton Bruckner

The Columbus Symphony performs Bruckner's Symphony No. 9 and Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand this weekend in the Ohio Theater. Jean-Marie Zeitouni conducts. Benedetto Lupo is the piano soloist. Your humble writer gives pre-concert talks one hour before every performance. This program will be broadcast on Classical 101 Sunday,  March 30 at 1 PM I used to think that the name Anton Bruckner had classical music marketers run screaming from their offices. I can't think of another romantic-era composer who has taken a worse rap. Bruckner is boring. He has these long, granitic stretches where nothing happens musically. He was an emotional mess and that carries over. He could never make up his mind. Und so weiter. Nonsense. Bruckner has become one of my favorite composers, albeit not right away. His music is large and uninhibited, life a bear awakened after a long winter. The bear is sometimes exulting and sometimes not. Any brass player will fall in love with this Austrian iconoclast. Conducts have always loved performing, if not rearranging the eleven symphonies Bruckner left us. Why? There are composers who are very emotional and wear their heart-strings in their music: Beethoven, certainly. Puccini, Mahler. Others, like Verdi and Richard Strauss-even Mozart to an extent-were great composers  and smart businessmen who wrote on commission for money, and to whom cash was important. I think Bruckner was the former trying very hard to be the latter. I also think that judging from the many accounts of his awkward social life and lack of hygiene, that Bruckner went beyond what we'd call the absent-minded professor into Asperger syndrome. Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) grew up in the Austrian Alps near the monastery of St. Florian. It was the gargantuan organ in the monastery church that put into Bruckner's head a kind of sonority he carried over into his music. Big, rich, dark, forbidding, soaring. Never triumphant, never small and never easy. Bruckner was a masterful organist, acclaimed for concert tours throughout Europe. He stunned the Brits with concerts in London's Royal Albert Hall. There were no recordings then so Bruckner's legacy as an organist comes to us in his church music first, later in his symphonies. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lPqHIjC3L7I He disliked his first two symphonies so much he called them zero and double-zero. Fast forward to the composer in his forties. He moves to Vienna because that was  the capital of the musical world. He grinds out a living teaching. He accepts jobs for no money. His self-esteem is low, but there are glimmers of hope in performances of his first few symphonies. His penchant for teenage girls and his habit of proposing marriage to them didn't help his reputation. The Ninth Symphony was Bruckner's last and it is incomplete. The composer's health was declining rapidly by 1890 - we think now Alzheimer's was added to the mix of ailments. Bruckner's fortunes were not improved by enmity of critic Eduard Hanslick. Highly influential,  Hanslick hated Bruckner's music. Here's a review of the Eighth Symphony:  "I found this newest one, as I have found the other Bruckner symphonies, interesting in detail but strange as a whole and even repugnant...also characteritic of Bruckner's new symphony is the immediate juxtaposition of dry schoolroom counterpoint with exaltation." Wagner was Hanslick's bete noire. Anything smacking of Wagner, long works with sophisticated chromaticism was anathema to Hanslick. Bruckner was known to be a Wagner discipline. He lacked Wagner's organization. Where Bruckner exceed was in his use of the orchestra, and his unorthodox ordering of keys...the ninth is in d minor. The composer goes to E major and even C major, flirting with keys far removed from te tonic.  A classicist like Hanslick would toss his caffè mit schlag. Bruckner never heard this Ninth Symphony. The three movements we have are slow-fast-slow The scherzo is not as jolly as a scherzo can suggest. It's downright angry sounding: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=81cU8hXqkm8 Past the third symphony, a complete score of any Bruckner symphony in the composer's handwriting does not exist. Even during his lifetime, Bruckner had friends and associates who tinkered with his work. The "improvements" continued long after the composer's death. What we know today as Bruckner's Ninth Symphony was premiered in 1932, with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Clemens Krauss. Whether Bruckner himself would have recognized his work is anyone's guess.